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The Solar System

I have two ideas for characters I want to explore in the Solar System. One is a fantasy character for a world I’ve been playing around with called Cursus, which is basically a perpetual swamp (Dagobah crossed with the Bayou and plagued with Voodoo). To push the system I am also interested in a sci-fi character, a kind of post-apocalypse scavenger.

Character creation in the game is a process of putting fairly free text against Fudge style ratings. Something that has become increasingly common in indie gaming.

The Swamp Dweller

It’s a bit of push to come up with a defining image for my swamp dweller, I try to imagine a bit about them. The strongest image is that they are polling through the swamp on a skiff, expertly gliding through the gnarled roots and away from the lurking crocs and mysterious tentacles probing the surface.

The first thing you are meant to come up with about the character is a Heroic Event, this may actually lie in the character’s future as a kind of flash-forward as to the kind of game you want to play.

Polling around the swamp doesn’t seem to be too heroic; so what do I want my character to be striving towards?

I think I would like the character to be searching for the source of spiritual pollution that is corrupting the swamp. Their heroic moment is therefore discovering a secret glade within the swamp that is filled with beautiful flowers and healthy plants.

The corresponding ability takes a bit of thinking about but I think it will be Swamp Magic. It kind of makes sense and says how my character is going to find the Hidden Glade.

This Ability is ranked at Expert, you then choose three skills from your character’s background that represent their skills and knowledge from their life to date.

Clearing Navigating the Swamp is going to be important. Delivering a Smack with a Paddle might be handy for keeping those crocs at bay. Finally I think that the character enjoys playing the flute as they relax in the roots of the massive trees that crowd the light out of the swamps, so Flute Playing.

I decide next that my character is going to be female and I need to settle on a name: Dar’kona. I like the first syllable but the second is just there to make it sound right.

At this point you describe your character’s Cultural Identity. Dar’kona comes from a culture that revolves around trying to eke a living from the swamp that surrounds them. People from the swamp know a great deal about moving safely through the swamp and how to avoid and make use of the animals and plants that it contains. They tend to be suspicious of outsiders and even of one another. The swamp is full of mysteries and people often know secrets and magic that is unknown elsewhere.

After the background is described you can specify any number of Mediocre skills. These are level zero skills that represent general skills your character would have picked up as part of living their lives but do not special affinity for. In general your character rolls any skill that does not require special knowledge or training as if they were level zero so at this stage you are trying to specify some things that the character knows as a result of growing up as they did that most people in their world do not know.

Bearing that in mind I am going to try:

  • Skinning
  • Herb Lore
  • Potion Brewing
  • Swamp Ways
  • Friends in the Swamp

Note that if everyone was from the Swamp then these skills might not be appropriate, every character would have Swamp Ways and Friends in the Swamp. In that case I would have to focus just on what Dar’kona has done that the other characters have not.

Defensive abilities

Now we need to define the character’s Passive abilities. These are used to resist actions against them and react to attacks and the like. The three Passive Abilities are Endure, React and Resist. Endure deals with things relating to pain and injury, React is about noticing things, thinking quickly and responding accurately, Resist is willpower. Very roughly these three can be regarded as Physical, Mental and Social.

For Dar’kona I want someone who is immune to scorn and doubt so Resist is going to be my best ability. However I’m not sure whether I want her to be tough (resisting all those swamp fevers) or quick-witted. I decide to go with React and instead decide that Dar’kona is quite young and therefore is likely to be scared of pain and likely to succumb to illness or fatigue.

This gives Endure as Mediocre, React as Competent and Resist as Expert. Dar’kona is unlikely to give in to peer pressure.

Pools

Accompanying the abilities are Pools that represent the character’s reserves and mechanically either fuel the character’s powers or provide bonus dice to a check.

The three pools are Vigour, Instinct and Reason which rather inexactly map again onto Physical, Mental and Social; for example you can resist attempts to sway your character to a point of view with Reason and check your gut feeling as to whether someone is lying with Instinct. You have ten points to divide between the three.

As all three are important I am going split my pools equally and put the remaining point into Instinct. Dar’kona is going to be stronger when she’s going with her heart.

Secrets and Keys

So far the game has been following the Fudge model pretty closely. I don’t think there is anything that would surprise people familiar with that game. In fact its one of the things that is attractive at this stage that it is relatively straight forward to create a new character.

Secret and Keys though are some of the special sauce of the The Shadow of Yesterday system whose Creative Commons licensed rules system the Solar System is derived from. Keys are things that drive Experience Points and Character Evolution. Secrets are kind of special powers that your character has access to. Secrets include things that are actually secret or mysterious in the setting but also include supernatural powers and abilities that it does not make sense to rank.

What is interesting about the Solar System is that it presents the mechanical bones of the system rather than exhaustive lists and expects players and referees to come up with what is appropriate for their game. The Shadow of Yesterday is much more opaque by comparison.

Choosing a key is pretty easy: The Key of Exploration! Dar’kona wants to explore the strange places within the swamp to find the Hidden Glade. This is known as a Motivational Key; mechanically whenever Dar’kona explores something or even wants to explore something she gets 1XP. If pursuing her desire for exploration requires sacrifice, hardship or risking danger then she gains 3XP.

The other kind of Key is called a Dramatic Key and revolves around a motif the character exhibits. This means things like daredevilry, uncovering secrets or trying to become a leader of a political party. These keys can generate more experience with 1XP for having the motif in a scene, 3XP for facing a challenge or difficulty as a result of the interest and 5XP for advancing the motif (e.g. being promoted, discovering a lost city).

The Secret is a little bit tougher, mechanically if a Secret is not giving you a background advantage or a power, it can give you a free bonus dice or allow you to channel your Pools into enabling powers or generating bonus dice.

My preference is for something that helps out with social interactions. Something like the Secret of a Trustworthy Face, this is a specialisation in that it will only apply when trying to charm or impress people in a friendly way. As such I can just get a bonus dice to Checks in those circumstances.

Free Advances

With all the mandatory steps completed we now have 5 Advances to spend. These are what XP buy you at a rate of 5XP for an advance. Essentially an Advance allows you to buy Pool dice, new Secrets, Keys and boost Abilities according to a sliding scale. You don’t have to spend all your Advances and can keep them until the game has started.

I do know that I need an additional Key to help generate XP and I could do with slightly higher skills and I should have a Secret that allows me to channel my Instinct Pool into my rolls.

The first thing to buy is a Dramatic Key that reflects Dar’kona’s quest for the Hidden Glade. This overlaps with the Exploration Motivation but is distinct in a couple of ways. Firstly it is possible to find the Hidden Glade and therefore in Solar System parlance buy off they Key. Buying off a Key generates XP and removes the Key from the character opening the way for a new Key, for example “Protect the Secret of the Hidden Glade”. Secondly the Finding the Hidden Glade is much more specific than general exploring, only events and scenes that relate to the Hidden Glade count. Lastly I am also sending a message to the GM and other players that my character is all about finding the Hidden Glade. Keys expressly drive the metagame and the narrative.

I am going to propose the following table for this Key:

XP Event
1 The Hidden Glade is mentioned
2 Finding clues as to the location of the Hidden Glade
5 Going on an expedition to find more information about the Glade or exploring a potential site Buyoff Finding the Hidden Glade

Then I buy the ability Likeable Personality at Competent for one Advance and raise Potion Brewing to Competent for the same cost.

As a secret I want to be able to funnel points into Swamp Magic so I am going to choose the Secret of the Swamp Heart which will allow me to buy a bonus die in my Swamp Magic from my Instinct pool. You have to be careful about maxing out your abilities as any character that achieves a maximum result basically leaves the game as their awesomeness transcends and transforms the game world. So for example Dar’kona might become one with the swamp, discovering all its secrets including the Hidden Glade.

I am going to keep back one Advance for use during the game, the system allows you to go into Advance Debt if you need to take advantage of a roleplaying opportunity to gain a new Secret or Key but I would rather stay flexible and see whether I need another ability or Pool point.

Dar’kona, searcher of the Hidden Glade

The very final thing I need to do is group all my abilities into groups that match the Pools. This isn’t explained properly in the character generation phase but in the explanation of the ability checks it starts to explain that links to the Pools are necessary to help cement the benefit of rolls and also to use Abilities when injured.

Vigour Instinct Reason
3 4 3
Endure React Resist
+0 +1 +2
  • +2 Swamp Magic (I)
  • +1 Navigating the Swamp®
  • +1 Smack with a paddle (V)
  • +1 Flute Playing (I)
  • +1 Potion Brewing®
  • +1 Likeable Personality (I)
  • +0 Skinning (I)
  • +0 Herb Lore®
  • +0 Swamp Ways (I)
  • +0 Friends in the Swamp (I)
  • Secret of the Swamp Heart
  • Secret of a Trustworthy Face
  • Key of Exploration
  • Key of the Search for the Hidden Glade

The Scrap hunter

I have a definite vision of this character (let’s call him Karl maybe), he is hidden away in a ruined bunker where, through a huge hole punched in it’s concrete exterior, we can see a scrubby desert scattered with the rusting hulks of cars. Karl is busy removing something from the depths of a ancient console, as he manages to get the ancient circuit board free, he hears the sounds of boots crunching over the gravel towards him.

Karl’s an Expert in Old-Tech Salvaging. He is Competent at Guns, Surviving in the Wastes and Getting Things Working.

In terms of his culture and background, Karl was born in the Before Time but he was very young and can remember very little about it. After the Disaster he was raised by his uncle in the desert before the New Towns rose. His uncle was happy to talk a lot about the things that were known in the Before Time but always refused to tell him much about his parents. After his uncle died Karl started to rove the desert and trade with the people of the New Towns. The townspeople seemed quite ignorant of the Old Tech and eventually Karl started working on their salvaged bits of machinery as well.

This gives him the Abilities: Before Times, Orphan, Family Ranch, Trading, Lay of the Land, History of the New Towns and Favours.

In terms of pools I think I might choose to take a risk and minimise social related values, I think Karl, while being very smart and educated for his milieu, might actually be quite vulnerable to peer pressure due his lonely childhood. So I go for Vigour 3, Instinct 3, Reason 4. By similar reasoning I emphasise React and Endure over Resist.

For a Key I choose the Key of Rediscovering the Past, a Dramatic key. For a Secret I choose the Secret of Salvaged Gear, this is similar to an example Secret in the booklet called Equipment. The equipment rules given are quite convoluted and unclear if you are not crafting your equipment. To try and solve the problem I want to try and generate an Effect with my Getting thing working and use that to generate equipment ratings (which vary from +1 to +3) representing bits of gear that Karl has found. Equipment adds it rating to an Ability check if the check was successful. This is a little unusual for games of this type but it is clear that the rules want to preclude characters who can rely on a backpack full of gear to get through their checks.

With my Free Advances I want to raise Before Times, Trading and create new Abilities Drive Old-Tech Vehicles and Ride. I also buy the Secret of Working Old-Tech which is similar to the Salvaged Gear except that it will use Old-Tech Salvaging to generate an Effect that can be kept during a Pool Refresh for free.

A Pool Refresh is a scene where your character relaxes and restores points to one of their Pools and their personal story advances or gets more complicated in some way. Normally all Effects expire at this point.

As an Effect is reduced as you remove dice from it this Secret is meant to represent things that are difficult to keep working in the post-apocalypse environment. For example a car that requires fuel, a gun with a limited supply of ammo or a GPS unit with a limited battery life.

Vigour Instinct Reason
3 3 4
Endure React Resist
+1 +2 +0
  • +2 Old-Tech Salvaging®
  • +1 Guns (V)
  • +1 Surviving in the Wastes (I)
  • +1 Getting Things Working®
  • +1 Ride (V)
  • +1 Drive Old-Tech Vehicles®
  • +1 Before Times®
  • +1 Trading (I)
  • +0 Orphan (I)
  • +0 Family Ranch (I)
  • +0 Lay of the Land (I)
  • +0 History of the New Towns®
  • +0 Favours (I)
  • Secret of Working Old-Tech
  • Secret of Salvaged Gear
  • Key of Rediscovering the Past

Thoughts on the Solar System

The Solar System booklet is dirt cheap and written in a direct straight-forward matter with plenty of colour examples along the way. When people talk about gateway games this kind of thing actually is one instead of expensive colour books with an introductory page entitled “What is roleplaying?”. It logically leads through the principles of the game and provides you with all the “behind the curtain” material you need to expand the base system to your setting.

It is not quite perfect though, the biggest mistake it makes is in introducing a concept before it has been explained, the big example for me being the Effects description (taking a benefit from a check roll, like creating a potion or first aid kit) that talks about marking down a Pool, which is then followed by an explanation that to take an Effect you must pay one Pool point from the Pool associated with the Ability.

In mechanical terms the system is pretty good, as you might expect of a rules system that is effectively third generation (Fudge, then TSOY then Solar System). The only quibble I have with it is that it probably tries too hard to make Abilities equivalent and effective. This then makes improving them often quite expensive. Something like Flute Playing is over-valued by the system in terms of improving it. There is a sense in which the system works better by taking a Musician Ability and the Secret of Flute Playing. I think the system could have been more tolerant of “colour” abilities and have made Abilities cheaper compared to Secrets.

You can also have a few problems in relating Abilities to Pools as players might feel their characters use their Abilities in different ways, for example is a Tracking Ability used by Instinct or Reason? I feel it is fair to say “both” as it depends on whether the character was brought up tracking things or whether they learnt it as skill (for example in the military). Keeping things flexible is important.

As a GM I also think you need to be careful about Keys as they quite extensively affect the game and the expectations of the setting. If you have a very defined experience in mind (say exploring a swamp or a fantasy metropolis) then it would probably be worth investing time in creating some Secrets and Keys that work well with the ideas you have in mind. Otherwise it seems likely that the players are going to be frustrated when they try and exercise their Keys but there are no opportunities to do so in your setting.

Read it for yourself

The Solar System is licensed under Creative Commons (in the same way that it’s ancestor The Shadow of Yesterday was), this means people have been able to reuse the material and present it in alternative forms. This Solar System Wiki seems to be the most usable web presentation of the system. If you are interested then feel free to go and read it yourself.

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